Paul Hunt: Climate change is a human rights issue

Paul Hunt: Climate change is a human rights issue

August 16, 2019

Climate change poses enormous human rights challenges in the Pacific and within Aotearoa New Zealand. It places responsibilities on government and every one of us.

While climate change is on the agenda of Pacific leaders in Tuvalu this week, they should ensure the link between climate change, human rights and responsibilities is explicit.

Rising temperatures, changing weather patterns and rising sea levels, will inevitably impact on living standards and public health, as well as economic and social stability.

Some of these impacts are already felt in New Zealand and they bear upon the effective enjoyment of human rights. They also have major implications for our responsibilities to each other, especially to young people and future generations, as Greta Thunberg reminds us.

Vulnerable and disadvantaged people -- the most marginalised in our communities -- are more likely to be affected by climate change and face greater levels of uncertainty and social disruption.

Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, argues, “The injustice of climate change is that the impacts are felt first and hardest by those with the least responsibility for the causes of the climate crisis.” 

She strongly urges governments to use human rights in their collective struggle for climate justice.

If left unchecked, climate change is incompatible with the right to life and the progressive realisation of the right to adequate food, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to a decent home, and the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

One of the best kept secrets in our country is that New Zealand has agreed to be bound by all these international human rights. Indeed, our representatives in the United Nations have painstakingly helped to formulate these human rights over the last 70 years.

The importance of a human rights approach to addressing climate change is clearly signalled in the 2016 Paris Agreement. Climate change also intersects with New Zealand’s obligations arising from the Sustainable Development Goals which themselves explicitly underscore the importance of human rights.

In the twenty-first century, human rights are not merely rhetorical aspirations. They are tools that can be used to strengthen environmental policymaking, ensure the disadvantaged are not left behind, make institutions responsive, ensure processes are fair, help to deliver sustainable outcomes, dignify individuals, and empower communities.

In short, climate justice demands, and benefits from, a strong commitment to human rights.

I welcome the proposed Zero Carbon Act. It is a major step in the right direction. It establishes a Climate Change Commission, periodic climate change risk assessments, and requires the Minister of Climate Change to put in place national adaptation plans.

Unfortunately, it does not make an explicit link between climate change and human rights. In other words, the government is not using all the tools - that is, human rights - at its disposal.

But this omission can easily be corrected.

New Zealand’s responsibilities for human rights can be explicitly woven into the fabric of the Climate Change Commission and all that it does. They can be explicitly placed in the policies, assessments and plans, not only for our own land, air and water, but also in our overseas aid for our neighbours in the Pacific.

At the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru last year, leaders declared that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific. For many years, young Pacific people and groups like the Pacific Climate Warriors have been at the forefront of raising international awareness on the need for urgent climate action. A few weeks ago, Philip Alston, an eminent international human rights expert, warned that climate change risks undoing the last 50 years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction. The stakes are very high. We need human rights and responsibilities to strengthen our overseas aid for climate justice.

New Zealand’s approach to climate justice must honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi principles of partnership, rangatiratanga over resources and taonga, participation and the duty to consult, the duty of active protection and equity. It is crucial that Māori actively participate in setting priorities and making decisions for climate justice. We must respect and affirm the profound relationship between tangata whenua and the environment, and the contribution that Māori practices, like kaitiakitanga, can make in providing sustainable solutions to climate change.

The proposed Zero Carbon Act provides a way of working that enables Te Tiriti principles to be taken into account. However, it should also explicitly include, as a statement of purpose, the principles and obligations of Te Tiriti, as well as New Zealand’s international human rights responsibilities, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is not a question of taking on new responsibilities. It is a modest step towards honouring our existing promises.

There is a little-known provision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which New Zealand helped to shape). It says that everyone has duties to the community in which alone their free and full development is possible.

Of course, national and local government have important human rights duties. So does the business community. And so do you and me.

Nowhere are our human rights, as well as our duties to each other, more important than in our collective struggle for climate justice.

This first appeared in the NZ Herald on the 16th of August.